Are Songwriters and Artists Financing Inflation With Their Credit Cards?

Recent data suggests that songwriters and artists are financing the necessities in the face of persistent inflation the same way as everyone else–with their credit cards. This can lead to a very deep hole, particularly if it turns out that this inflation is actually the leading edge of stagflation (that I predicted in October of 2021).

According to the first data release for the US Census Bureau’s recent Household Plus survey, over 1/3 of Americans are using credit cards to finance necessities at an average interest rate of 19%. Credit card balances show an increase that maps the spike in inflation CPI over the same time period. This spike results in a current debt balance of $16.51 trillion (including credit cards). There’s nothing “transitory” about credit card debt no matter the helping of word salad from the Treasury Department. Going into the Christmas season (a bit after this chart) U.S. credit card debt increased to the highest rate in 20 years

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:

These balance increases, being practically across the board, are not surprising given the strong levels of nominal consumption we have seen. With prices more than 8 percent higher than they were a year ago, it is perhaps unsurprising that balances are increasing. Notably, credit card balances have grown at nearly double that rate since last year. The real test, of course, will be to follow whether these borrowers will be able to continue to make the payments on their credit cards. Below, we show the flow into delinquency (30+ days late) grouped by zip code-income. Here, it’s clear—delinquency rates have begun increasing, albeit from the unusually low levels that we saw through the pandemic recession. But they remain low in comparison to the levels we saw through the Great Recession and even through the period of economic growth in the ten years preceding the pandemic. For borrowers in the highest-income areas, delinquency rates remain well below historical trends. It will be important to monitor the path of these delinquency rates going forward: Is this simply a reversion to earlier levels, with forbearances ending and stimulus savings drying up, or is this a sign of trouble ahead?

What does it mean for artists and songwriters? It is more important than ever that creators work is valued and compensated. When it comes to government-mandated royalty rates like webcasting for artists and streaming for songwriters, due to the long-term nature of these government rates, it is crucial that creators be protected by a cost of living adjustment. (Remember, a cost of living adjustment or “COLA” is simply an increase in a government rate based on the rise of the Consumer Price Index, also set by the government.)

Thankfully, the webcasting rates (set in “Web V”) are protected by the benchmark cost of living adjustment, as are the mechanical royalty rates paid to songwriters for physical and download.

The odd man out, though, is the streaming mechanical rate which has no cost of living adjustment protection. This is troubling and exposes songwriters to the ravages and rot of inflation in what we continue to be told is the most important income stream for songwriters. If it’s the most important royalty, why shouldn’t it also have the most protection from inflation?

Applying a Cost of Living Adjustment to Streaming Mechanicals

You are no doubt aware that the Copyright Royalty Judges handed down a final rule adopting the settlement covering streaming mechanicals reached by the major publishers and the richest and most dominant corporations in the history of Planet Earth: Apple, Amazon, Google, Pandora and Spotify. There are many who are dissatisfied with the negotiated rate, no doubt. There are many who are disappointed that the Judges perpetuated the mind-numbing complexity of the royalty calculation methodology (which probably costs more to account on a per-stream basis than the payable royalty).

That’s all true, but is a byproduct of the discriminatory practices frozen in time at the CRB, a libertarian hell-scape preserved in amber. As if taking a trip to Jurassic World (or at least 2009) wasn’t bad enough, the Judges refused even to place a toe onto the arc of the moral universe as they just did in the Subpart B rate setting in the same proceeding (i.e., the Phonorecords IV rates that abandoned the frozen mechanical and adopted an annual cost of living adjustment for physical and permanent download configurations).

I discuss this in more detail in a post on MusicTechPolicy in which I question whether a hidebound adoption of rates that fail to apply a COLA equally and treat likes alike in the same proceeding is lawful, much less good policy. While the Judges focus on giving the negotiating parties, aka the rich people, what they want and ignore the notorious unfairness of the Copyright Royalty Board whose rulings apply to all songwriters in the world who ever lived or may ever live regardless of representation, I argue that applying the same COLA calculation to streaming as to Subpart B configurations solves the problem. This post will lay out a simple method of implementing a COLA for streaming.

The policy goal would be to apply the COLA formula to streaming. Because the streaming formula is so unduly complex, it’s easy to understand the resistance to adding still another step. Remember that the greater than/lesser of monthly calculation is a series of steps that gets to a per-play rate of sorts. All of the greater of/lesser than calculations have been fought and salivated over by dozens of lawyers (literally) so changing any one of them is probably not productive and in my mind is not necessary to give effect to the COLA. Remember that in the history of the government’s mechanical rate, the COLA was applied to a rate as an uplift, not as a way to calculate a rate. The point of a COLA is always to preserve the value of the government’s rate and recognizes that the songwriter will not have a chance to revisit the rate for five year tranches and a lot can happen in five years.

The easiest way to apply a COLA to streaming is to derive the per-play rate given the current formula and then uplift it with a COLA. The Judges already have a COLA based on CPI-U . The Judges need only apply the COLA as a legal modification to the streaming mechanical and accept the base line rates in the negotiated settlement. Otherwise, the exact same songs with the exact same songwriters for the exact same recording in the exact same proceeding will have a COLA when exploited by record companies and none when exploited by the rich people. This result just seems arbitrary. The labels having shown the way to a fair result should be followed by the DSPs.

We raised this approach in a Phonorecords IV comment I filed for David Lowery, Helienne Lindvall and Blake Morgan:

Applying the COLA to Section 115 may actually have a simple solution. The Judges already have a COLA formula. That formula can simply be applied as a step (5) in 37 CFR §385.21(b). This way the negotiated settlement terms are not re- opened.

Adding a COLA uplift to the applicable royalty calculation is simple. First, determine the applicable payable royalty for the accounting period concerned under the negotiated rates. Then apply the COLA formula derived by the Judges as an uplift to the payable royalties as a last step in the royalty calculation. The COLA could be calculated either annually or monthly although monthly seems more appropriate and accurate.

The uplifted amount (after any uplifted overtime adjustment to plays) would then be reflected on the applicable Copyright Owner’s royalty statement as the payable royalty for that accounting period.

This seems like a simple solution that brings the streaming mechanical out of Jurassic World and into the Era of the Songwriter.